From Networked Public Sphere to Networked Polis?

October 23, 2008

My trusty RSS feeds have turned up two interesting recent posts on the subject of the Obama campaign and it’s implications for the future of governance in a networked society.

First, David Lazer, professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Director of the Program on Networked Governance, asks some big questions (emphasis added):

The lights are not going off on this operation. If Obama loses, the network provides him an instant infrastructure to run again. The more intriguing question to me, as a student of politics, is what happens if, as seems likely right now, he wins. There are inter-related political and strategic questions. On the political side, the question is how Obama might use the apparatus to help him govern. Does he directly appeal to his e-mail list to support his policy objectives? There are, on average, about four thousand politically active Obama supporters in each Congressional district–that could be a lot of letters to Members.

And a few lines down:

On the strategic side, the question is to what extent does the apparatus continue to evolve to allow grassroots involvement, and to what extent does stuff flow up as well as down? In the long run, the only way that there will be some stickiness to the structure is if the people who have been involved can mobilize for local action, can connect to each other, and feel that their voices matter.

network cables (photo by pascal.charest cc-by-nc-nd)

network cables (photo by pascal.charest cc-by-nc-nd)

Meanwhile, Joshua-Michele Ross at O’Reilly interviews Jascha Franklin-Hodge (founder and CTO of Blue State Digital, or BSD), who offers some partial answers to many of the same questions.

I recommend reading the whole post (and watching the videos, if you’re more of a visual person or whatever), but here’s the bullet-point version of Ross’s claims if you absolutely insist (emphasis removed from the original):

  1. Online U.S. political communities will morph from a campaign fundraising role to a governing role.
  2. Rather than one centrally governed behemoth, MyBO is enabling a thousand small campaigns to flourish…This kind of swarm politics has generated enormous amounts of energy (and money) from ordinary citizens.
  3. Technology (infrastructure and know-how) will become a necessary core competence in all U.S. political campaigns…Campaigns that maintain or are able to tap into a continuity of software, infrastructure and human capital will have serious advantage.
  4. When lobbyist data, earmark data etc. is available in standard formats it will be a great leap forward for more transparency in government.

Responses 1-3 are in varying stages of already being true. Number 4, on the other hand, has a long way to go (although the folks at the Sunlight Foundation are plugging away on that front).

Whether Franklin-Hodge’s vision of digital democracy comes to fruition, the devil will be in the details. An underlying concern voiced by Lazer is how the nodes (citizens and groups) at the edges of U.S. politics might use digital networks to enhance traditional mechanisms of representation (politicians and political parties). I would build off this insight to ask both authors whether they think the architecture of the network and the technologies that run it will also play an important role in determining the fate of netwoked democracy? If so, how do we design networks to facilitate democratic practice?

As a number of folks have argued, the choice of particular platforms and standards will enable certain forms of civic engagement while foreclosing or devaluing others. Furthermore, just because voters could gain access to the same kinds of technologies doesn’t mean they’ll use them equally effectively or even in the same ways (check out Eszter Hargittai’s research on skillful Internet use if you want some really sobering examples).

All of this is to say that the prospect of a networked polis (like a networked public sphere) presents a number of problems and challenges that few (if any) societies have been able to resolve with earlier communications technologies or institutional formations. In the ancient Greek version of the polis, a narrow class of citizens (land-owning men of means) had the ability and the right to participate. While contemporary democracies have become more populist and inclusive, the reality is that the playing field remains wildly uneven in favor of the wealthy, the well-educated, and the well-connected.

If the future imagined by Franklin-Hodge, Lazer, and others indeed comes to pass, all the fiber optic cable in the world will not make the democratization of effective citizenship any less of an uphill battle.

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